The clock turns its hands into the late hours of the night, ticking to numbers that mark bedtimes, midnights, and mornings. For 60 million people, the hours pass by in front of them for days to two or three weeks before their bodies let them fall asleep. Scientists understand very little about chronic insomnia, the condition that disproportionately affects women and people over the age of 65 more than any other group.
Just one night bereft of sleep can cause devastating effects on a person’s daily routine. At the hours they have work, family obligations, and other responsibilities scheduled, they become dysfunctional human beings, who will never be able to reach their full functionality and potential without adequate sleep.
“Sleep is the fuel of life,” Gayle Greene, an insomnia sufferer himself and author of Insomniac told NPR. "I don't manage this beast," Greene wrote. "I live with it. I live around it. I bed down with it every night, gingerly, cautiously, careful not to provoke it. I do my best to placate it, domesticate it, dull its claws, avoid its fangs, knowing that at any moment it can pounce on me and tear me to bits."
Until the 1950s, most people, including researchers and physicians, thought of sleep only as a passive and dormant part of a human’s daily life. Sleep has taken on a forefront in medical investigation, as researchers try to unweave the intricate interplay of brain function, immune system, respiration, cardiovascular health, appetite, and mental health. Scientists are only just starting to grasp the extent to which our health relies on the length and quality sleep gives our bodies. The average person sleeps away a third of each day, which over a lifetime, converts to 30 years of sleep by the time a person reaches their 90th birthday. What is going on inside our brains, bodies, and stomachs while we slumber night after night, and more importantly, what will happen if we don’t get our necessary sleep time?
A recent study published in the journal Sleep reveals why insomniacs are having such a difficult time with day-to-day concentration and focus. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have found that when they compared the brain scans of insomniacs to people without insomnia, the sleep-deprived were unable to turn off their wandering mind.
Nerve-signaling chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, control whether or not we are awake or asleep by activating different nerve cells, neurons, and portions of the brain. The chemical adenosine, which was discovered in the mid- to late-1900s, builds up in our blood the longer we are awake, which causes drowsiness throughout the day and into the night until it breaks down while we sleep and begins the cycle again when we awake. If sleep doesn’t happen, the accumulation of adenosine decreases neural activity in order to facilitate sleep, which reduces cognitive performance and impairs memory.
"This study suggests PIs [primary insomniacs] have a reduced ability to engage some task-appropriate brain regions and reduced ability to modulate task-irrelevant (i.e., default mode) brain regions during working memory performance," researchers wrote in the study.
Aside from mental health degradation, people who slept just less than six hours a night were four times more likely to experience stroke symptoms, compared to those who were clocking in eight hours a night. The study, which was presented at the SLEEP 2012 Conference, said even if the deprived-sleeper didn’t have a history of strokes, aren’t overweight, and don’t have an increased risk for obstructive sleep apnea, they still quadrupled their chances of stroke without the appropriate shut eye.
This has become a national health issue. There aren’t just a few thousand random people who lie awake each night; researchers have found millions with distinct demographics. Forty-eight percent of Americans report the occasional insomnia, while 22 percent experience it on a nightly basis, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Women are more 1.3 times more likely to report experiencing insomnia than men, and people over the age of 65 are 1.5 times more likely to report their sleeplessness than those younger than them.
The National Sleep Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, was established in 1990 to collect and educate the general public on sleep research. Following closely behind was the 1993 opening of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, a branch within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fill the demand for research funding for problems ranging from sleep apnea to insomnia to narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, and chronic fatigue. More and more sleep disorders are being diagnosed every day, and the demand is being met by a growing supply of treatment centers. It’s no coincidence that there are nearly five times as many accredited sleep disorder centers now than there were in 2000.
Night after night people are driving up their health risks of long-term diseases or conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, according to Mayo Clinic. Beyond the health risks an insomniac incurs inside their body, their slower reactions times while driving a vehicle put themselves and others at risk. A string of other life-altering issues plague insomniacs’ lives, such as psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety disorder, coupled with low performance at school or work, followed by unyielding irritability, and possible substance abuse.
After only one night, insomnia can easily cause hallucinations, emotional instability from exhaustion, unfiltered creativity, ongoing worries caused by anticipating sleep, tension headaches, distress in the digestive tract, and an unfocused mind.
The amount of sleep each person needs completely varies on the individual’s age. Newborns need between 16 to 18 hours a day, while preschool-aged children need 11 to 12 hours, school-aged children need at least 10 hours, and teens only need nine to 10. The older we get, the less sleep is completely necessary to maintain a healthy mental and physical state, as adults, which include the elderly, only need seven to eight hours a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Insomnia treatment must be sought after with physician-monitored care and oftentimes, because insomnia can be caused by trauma or stress, therapy is integrated into treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a structured program, which includes a detailed sleep diary, that helps insomniacs replace sleep-disturbing thoughts and behaviors that worsen their condition, and often used as a treatment approach before sleep pills are prescribed. Unlike sleeping pills, CBT has been shown to help insomniacs with their underlying causes of their sleep problems.
Recently BuzzFeed produced a video for their viewers to see by the hour what happens to an insomniac. As the hours without sleep pass by, their mental condition deteriorates and gets progressively worse until they can finally achieve their desperately sought after sleep.
- 22 hours without sleep: “Lack of rapid eye movement (REM) throughout the night, causes restlessness and emotional instability during the day.”
- 28 hours without sleep: “We can be intensely creative. When our minds are tired we don’t censor our thoughts which can boost creativity.”
- 38 hours without sleep: “Time is torture. Worrying about sleep creates anticipatory anxiety,” which prevents you from sleeping.”
- 42 hours without sleep: “We are emotionally raw. The body reacts to exhaustion by crying to help reduce chemical imbalance.”
- 47 hours without sleep: “We see things. Sleep deprivation disrupts your thought process, triggering hallucinations.”
- 56 hours without sleep: “Nothing seems to work. Science has not proven the biological need for sleep. But when we finally do sleep it feels like a miracle.”